Bread. 19 April 2008
What we need to do so as not to become irrelevant, ineffective
source: 'Today' newspaper, 19 April 2008, by Loh Chee Kong
STATE OF SINGAPORE JOURNALISM:
What we need to do so as not to become irrelevant, ineffective
Make no mistake, Singapore journalism is at a crossroads - and it is still searching for the way forward.
Lack of reader excitement for its best works. A rising cynicism with politics and journalism. A growing feeling that the craft needs a reinvention as it tries to interest people in the news of the day.
These would not look out of place as descriptions of the journalism scene in Singapore, except that this was exactly what had happened in the United States in the 1990s.
But the difference was that the Americans decided to do something about it. Community newspapers polled the residents and held townhall meetings, and they realised what they perhaps suspected all along: Newspapers are viewed as arrogant, negative and detached from the community.
The end product was a growing consciousness of public or civic journalism, where the work of the press is restyled to re-engage the public.
In Singapore, the industry's response so far appears to be an attempt to make itself look good by window-dressing.
Cue marketing efforts going into overdrive with revamps and makeovers without giving the same amount of attention to content.
These changes should be extended to address fundamental questions, such as what Singapore journalists are for. Why do we need journalists? What do we stand for? What could we be doing if we wanted to do more?
Singapore society has evolved since 1959, when then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew restructured The Straits Times and designated the press' role as a "nation-building partner".
But some might say, journalism is still playing catch-up, with newspapers trying to cling to the promised land of financial viability that a stable and prosperous country would bring.
What do journalists stand for? To quote Associate Professor Jay Rosen, a journalism academic who wrote the 1999 book What are Journalists For?, they "uphold the public's right to know, a spirit of openness and honesty in the conduct of public business, the free flow of information and ideas, along with truthfulness, accuracy, balance and fair play in the news".
Before any cynic proclaims that these tenets of journalism are unworkable in Singapore, let us be clear that a self-defeatist attitude would get the journalism industry nowhere.
Indeed, for a country that prides itself on its honest governance and transparency, there is no reason journalism should accept anything less.
It is clear that the press in Singapore has limited powers and expressedly so.
Laws such as the Internal Security Act and the Official Secrets Act keep journalists and editors in check while the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act empowers the Government to determine the composition of a newspaper company's board of directors.
But why should that stop Singapore journalists from practising meaningful journalism?
In fact, journalists must be at the forefront of asking the critical questions - simply because of their privileged position, which allows them to go to places or see things few people do.
For one, the press should try to help reconnect politics and government and make sure that the public's right to hear its concerns is discussed.
One school of thought, echoed by Assoc Prof Rosen, is that "if politics and public affairs become a distant scene with sordid characters unable to earn our respect, a closed loop in which the usual suspects talk only to each other, an empty spectacle that sheds no light on what matters most, then, the watchdog would have failed in its custodial duty".
Yet, there is another school of thought that firmly believes journalism is just about reporting the facts. Even in the US, critics of public journalism fell back on "tradition": The traditional separation between news and opinion, the traditional caution against getting too involved, the traditional imperatives of independence and detachment.
Former top civil servant and Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) director Ngiam Tong Dow belongs to that school. Recalling his days as a cub reporter at The Straits Times in the '50s, he said at an SPH lecture last month that journalists should be reporters of facts and nothing else.
Ironically, Mr Ngiam, a frequent critic of the Government and who stresses that he merely offers an alternative viewpoint, reiterated that a free press "is not a tower of Babel" and the power to censor "has to be used wisely and sparingly".
Mr Ngiam had said: "If you feel irked by the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts' guidelines, let me tell you of the unremitting routine of North Korean diplomats. Every presentation began with a litany of praise for their Great Leader."
With all due respect, we have moved out of the '50s. While fundamental journalistic values must stand the test of time, it is precisely these traditions that have caused the press to lose its audience and public trust. And Singapore is not North Korea, thankfully.
It is a modern economy and cosmopolitan city. But no financial hub in the world should have its press scrambling to play catch up with the international media on news of its own financial institutions.
Just count the number of times the international media have set the pace in terms of coverage on controversies involving Temasek Holdings. It was also foreign news agency Dow Jones that exposed the potential conflict of interest involving Singapore Exchange chief executive officer Hsieh Fu Hua.
For Singapore to propel itself into the league of top cities, the press cannot be a passive mirror of society.
With every story, newspapers tell the reader where to look and how to look at a particular issue.
Newspapers are run by businessmen who should stick to their job and leave the journalists to do theirs. And the journalists have a big task on their hands: Get out there and connect with the readers, through dialogue sessions, blogs, community projects and partnerships.
It's far from being the Fourth Estate, a role the Government believes the media should not play; still, Singapore journalism has some way to go.
The way forward? Instead of an imagined public who sees civic affairs as everyone's business, create one. Instead of documenting events and explaining policies, ignite readers' interest in them. Build a community and balance sceptism with hope that everyone can contribute to our society.
Only then would Singapore journalism truly live up to its tag as a "nation-building partner".